The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions

By Woodruff, Darren | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions


Woodruff, Darren, The Journal of Negro Education


The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. 472 pp. $24.95, cloth.

Reviewed by Darren Woodruff, American Institutes for Research, Washington, D.C.

The aims and values of an educational institution are often revealed most vividly by the choices it makes in selecting its students. With this assertion, the authors of this painstakingly documented and well-written study launch into a fascinating and timely examination of race and the college admissions process and the related academic and career outcomes for Black students admitted into selective colleges and universities. The title of the book, The Shape of the River, is used by the authors as a metaphor to signify the complex and controversial nature of linking social progress to affirmative action, particularly in the context of increasing access to higher education. The data for this study comes from the College and Beyond database, a compilation of records fox more than 80,000 undergraduate students who matriculated at 28 colleges and universities in the fall semesters of 1951, 1976, and 1989. The authors, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard universities, respectively, utilize this quantitative data as well as their own considerable experiences in higher education to build a persuasive argument for continuing the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Chapter 1, "Historical Context," sets the tone for examining the current debate on race and college admissions. The authors site data showing that in 1951, Black students averaged 0.8% of the entering class at the 19 College and Beyond schools for which records were available. From 1960 to 1995, the percentage of college graduates in the overall population of Blacks rose from 5.4% to 15.4%, largely as a result of the civil rights movement and increased attention to past discriminatory practices. Additionally, during this time the Black-White gap in college entrance examination scores declined by approximately 25%. These educational achievements helped lead to the gradual emergence of a Black middle class, with 20% of Blacks in 1990 working at a management or professional level, up from 5% in 1950. Despite such progress and the related benefits to society, however, the authors note that efforts to increase the number of minority professionals through race-sensitive admissions policies have never been fully accepted. They provide a recent example of this tension in the 1996 announcement by the Regents of the University of California that the nine universities in their system would no longer be permitted to take race into account in admitting students. Other states have since followed with their own lawsuits challenging the consideration of race in admission policies.

Chapter 2, "The Admissions Process and Race-Neutrality," explores how Black enrollment at selective schools would have proceeded under a race-neutral admissions system. The chapter begins by demonstrating that the vast majority of undergraduate institutions accepted all qualified candidates, leaving only 20% to 30% of schools in a position to apply more restrictive selection criteria, be it race or any other standard. These more selective institutions are represented by five of the colleges and universities in the College and Beyond database. Bowen and Bok contend that the adoption of a strict race-neutral standard by these schools would have resulted in a 50% to 70% reduction in Black enrollment. Moreover, the enrollment level of Blacks under such a system would have fallen from 7.1% to 2.1% of the entering class. They further conclude that the drop-off in qualified applicants would have stemmed directly from disparities in precollegiate academic achievement, as seen particularly in test scores and high school grades. As they maintain, the academic credentials of the students rejected under the race-neutral premise would have been only slightly weaker than those of the students who would have been admitted. …

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